High Tech High, the operator of a chain of charter schools, has been praised for its innovative teaching methods and high student achievement. The nonprofit company has done so well that it has expanded beyond San Diego, opening schools in other parts of the state.

But one question school board members asked recently is how much of that success should be attributed to the school, and how much to the students that attend it. The question is, does the school tend to attract more successful students in the first place, who would perform well in any school, something known as “creaming.” (Just as the cream is the choicest part that rises to the top of milk, some students also tend to rise of the top, holding all other factors constant.)

A report prepared for the San Diego Unified School District board touches upon this issue, by comparing the student demographics to the rest of district. These demographics are important because research has shown that socioeconomic class, with all other things being equal, is a pretty good indicator of academic achievement.

Consider this table, which suggests that High Tech students tend to generally be whiter than the rest of the district:

In the table below, “ELL” refers to the percentage of students who are English learners (and thus tend to test lower) and “SPED” refers to the percentage who are special-education students. High Tech High tends to have fewer of each than the rest of the district. The number of kids who receive free or reduced lunches is also a pretty good proxy for socioeconomic status.

To avoid creaming, state law requires charter schools to create a system of admissions that results in a student population that is roughly representative of the entire district. High Tech High, as most of the charters in San Diego, uses a lottery system. (Certain students — for example, those with parents who work for the company or whose siblings went to a High Tech campus — receive priority enrollment.) The lottery system was one of the concerns about the Mission Valley charter approved last month.

But another issue is transportation. Inner-city kids may not be going to High Tech High in proportional numbers because they simply have no way to get there, as the chain currently does not provide any busing options. High Tech High did rent some buses a few years ago, paid for by a federal grant, but the program stopped when the grant ran out.

Speaking before the school board last month, representatives of the company said they were working hard to recruit a more diverse student body. They also said they would love to provide buses, but that the cost of servicing the current debt on the school facilities built to house the High Tech High campuses currently leave it no money for a busing service.

VLADIMIR KOGAN

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